Softball Primed For Opening SEC Series

It's unlikely Vann Stuedeman has ever heard of the former football who made success each day his slogan. Yet Mississippi State's softball coach certainly invokes the same theme this week to keep her Bulldogs focused on the present. "Destination disease will kill you," she said. "You make goals and a plan, it lets win today."

The softball Bulldogs do have a plan and most certainly have goals for 2013. They are off to a strong start in that direction, too, now 14-4 on the early season and coming off an eye-opening weekend in Orlando. There Mississippi State won all five games in the D9 Citrus Classic, and the eyes that are opening belong to pollsters. Stuedeman's squad isn't in the top-25 yet but are picking up votes.

Just another step towards that ultimate destination, said slugger Logan Foulks. "I think it defined us a lot on what we're made of and what we can accomplish in the season. And into the post season."

Ooops, that might show symptoms of the ‘destination disease' so feared by Stuedeman. Still when a squad is riding an eight-win streak and preparing to open SEC season it is the coach's first job to fix everyone's focus. "We talk about living and playing the game in the moment," the second-year coach said.

And that moment, or today's winnable something, is a 5:30 home game with Memphis (7-12). This game is part of Catholic Student Association Night at the Softball Stadium, though all creeds are encouraged to attend and cheer on a bunch of hot Dogs. State is off to the best 18-game start since the 2008 season, and with a win today would tie for the seventh-best such streak in the program's history.

The statistical start is as impressive. The Bulldogs are batting .288 on the season and pinned an ERA of almost 4.00 on opposing pitching. Flip the picture for MSU moundsmen with their 1.57 staff ERA and a ratio of 179 strikeouts to just 25 walks. It's easy to find which flinger is setting the staff pace too. Alison Owen has been brilliant, better even than the high preseason expectations, with a 8-1 record and 0.47 ERA through her eight starts.

That included three of the five wins in Orlando, where Owen gave up just two runs in 18.2 innings against quality competition from up and down the East Coast. This earned her the second SEC Pitcher of the Week recognition, in a row.

"Back to back Pitcher of the Week has been an awesome experience," Owen said. "I'm really blessed to have my name on the award but I feel it's a team effort." Such as in her no-hitter against Fordham, the 14th in program history and by Owen's best recollection her first since junior high. Though she dominated those batters in the five innings, no-no's do usually need a little luck. And a lot of help.

"There was a play where the ball bounced off Logan's wrist, and the shortstop threw the runner out," Owen said. "There's no way I'd have got that award without my teammates."

At the same time the righthanded junior, a transfer, has done her part. Of 193 at-bats, only 16 have hit her so far. Owen is more than the staff's lead Dog too, she added a save by closing out Maryland. "I feel comfortable starting and closing," Owen said. "I just love our staff because I think we have such a deep staff. All can be thrown into any situation, I can come in and close; Kylie Vry (1-2, 1.14) can close and can start, Jacey Punches (1-0, 2.62) can close and start." State is also getting good starts out of veteran Stephanie Becker, now 4-1 with a 3.05 ERA and 65 strikeouts of her own.

When Stuedeman came to campus she set about adjusting Mississippi State's overall approach to the game. While pitching remains the priority in any winning program, Stuedeman knew college softball is increasingly offensive. The results are showing in 2013. Besides the consistent average, these Dogs are reaching base at a .386 rate thanks to 68 walks through 18 games. More to the point, they are being scored with 82 runs already.

Foulks, the North Carolina transfer, is living up to her power reputation. She's knocked five balls out of parks with 13 RBI, and over the winning weekend batted .529. That raised the season average to .358. Partly she credits the plan taken to the plate, putting cleats on chalk and taking away the outside offerings.

But, Foulks said, "It definitely gets easier with your dugout picking up signs and pitches. There's so much behind the scenes stuff that goes on."

Stuedeman is getting production too from Sam Lenahan, with a .386 average that is best among the regulars and a team-leading 17 RBI. She also has slugged five home runs. A couple of Jessica's, Offutt and Cooley, have combined for a dozen steals. Stuedeman wants an offense that pressures defenses on the paths and the Dogs have delivered with 49 steals in 63 tries. The opponents have only ten thefts, total.

All good stuff, but the coach likes something else that will factor over the longer haul. "Every championship is won through team chemistry," Stuedeman said. That was on display over the weekend, both on and off the field. State certainly showed it could focus on business, too, because there was no lack of distractions in Disney's domain.

"We had a great trip all-in-all. And we had a lot of fans and parents there, we had some alumni come out that lived in that area." One of them is temporarily in the region. The Bulldogs visited Braves training camp and got to meet Diamond Dog great Paul Maholm, which had fellow pitcher Owen giddy. "I'm from Georgia, so I'm a huge Braves fan! It was really, really cool meeting him. He took pictures and wished us good luck."

And, as Stuedeman said, Maholm wore maroon on that Friday. So "I thought it worked really well. We might have made some chemistry points."

If the Bulldogs keep winning this weekend they'll score a lot of big ranking points. They've drawn LSU for the SEC opener, the #12-ranked team in the country and a College World Series participant last season. These Tigers are on that same track. Maybe though these Dogs have picked up their pace. Stuedeman reminds that in four meetings last season, the box scores were identical in almost every line…except the scores. LSU drove runners home, State didn't, and that was all the difference.

This squad believes it is better-prepared for SEC season, having played—intentionally—an interesting collection of clubs just for that purpose. Foulks said State has confidence as a result, especially for the offense.

"Because with the variety of teams is a variety of pitching. Our hitters get to see a lot of different types of spins and types of windmills. That helps the team to learn how to adapt to adversity. It helps everybody practice speed but when it comes to learning to wait on the ball and stay through the ball, not trying to hit it out every pitch, know your dinker might score the winning run."

First, though, Stuedeman wants a win over Memphis. It's that ‘in the moment' mentality again. Then everyone can build excitement for starting SEC season on the home field.

"And I look for it to be a typical SEC series, which is typical super regional," Stuedeman said. "Every weekend in the SEC is a super regional because everybody is very good. I think it will be a fun weekend, the weather is going to be great. baseball is in town."

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